It seems like every year, there are a few coaches in the spotlight for their poor behavior. This year has been no exception. Maybe you saw the epic rant that the basketball coach from Southern Illinois had this week. He proceeded to demean his players in front of the media. I don’t know if he just couldn’t contain himself or if he thought his rant would motivate his players. I understand that the coaching profession can be emotional, rewarding, and sometimes frustrating. I have coached youth basketball in the past and I coach groups and individuals in fitness currently. I believe that a positive approach to coaching can be more effective and help people be more successful. I felt compelled to type this post this week because of this latest coaching rant and also the poor behavior of other coaches this year, like Mike Rice of Rutgers. This is not something that is limited to just this year. In the past, we could always find the latest antics of hot headed coach Bob Knight on SportsCenter. It’s also not isolated to only basketball, but for my purposes here, let’s use basketball as an example. I worry that these negative approaches to coaching, especially in the youth ranks, will keep some kids from participating in sports. This is unfortunate, because there are so many life lessons that can be learned in sports beyond just the physical benefits of exercise. The first and only year I played basketball in Middle School, I was constantly belittled and made fun of in front of the team by one of the coaches. It stuck with me for a long time and I never played school ball again. It took the joy out of my favorite sport, and it bothers me now that there are coaches out there doing the same kind of thing. After all, it is just a game and it’s supposed to be fun, at least that’s why we start competing. Maybe the coach did me a favor, because now I hope to help others build confidence, work hard, and be positive.
A coach has a choice, they can rule with fear, or they can be positive and inspire their players. I choose the latter. I consider coaches like John Wooden and Phil Jackson to be excellent examples of great coaches that helped players reach their peak performance. John Wooden once said, “A coach is someone who can give correction without causing resentment.” Coach Wooden demanded discipline and hard work, but his players remembered him fondly. He didn’t have to get in their face, berate them, push them, throw balls at them, and slam their character in a press conference. He was the epitome of class. He helped his team be successful by focusing on the little details, like how to wear your socks and shoes properly to help prevent blisters. Because if you had blisters, you wouldn’t be able to practice and play your best. He also was well organized, and every minute of practice was mapped out, so not a minute was wasted. You can find more of John Wooden’s quotes of wisdom here. Phil Jackson tried to teach his players mindfulness and how to let go of their egos and play as a team. Coach Jackson knew that each player needed to be coached a little differently depending on their personality, and he was mindful in the way he interacted with each one of them. He has talked specifically about coaching Dennis Rodman. He noticed that when his coach in Detroit would get fired up and emotional, Rodman seemed to feed off that energy. When Dennis was getting worked up, Coach Jackson would give him space. He tried to be a calm presence around him to help him stay calm. I also admired the way coach Jackson could sit calmly on the bench and let his players play. It drives me crazy when I see a coach, especially a youth coach, constantly barking out directions to their players during a game. I believe practice is the time for detailed instruction, and the game is an opportunity for the players to express what they have learned from their practice. A great coach can let them explore and work things out for themselves, while still being present to guide the team and give instruction when needed (which isn’t constantly).
For those looking to add a positive spin to their coaching, we can look at some principles from Positive Psychology. 1) Help a player recognize their strengths. Observe your athletes and make note of what they are good at. Once they know their strengths, they can learn to use them for future success. 2) Share with your players at least one thing you saw them do well after every practice or game. This is a great way to boost their confidence and send them home on a positive note and feeling optimistic. 3) Help them set realistic goals and come up with a plan to reach those goals. It gives them a purpose and something to work hard towards. 4) Lastly, teach them about grit, the ability to persist. There is research showing a strong connection between student success and grit. I believe that grit also results in success in sports. Help them set their goals, teach them to stick it out and work hard. It also important that they are not afraid to fail, over and over again, until they reach success. That is what true grit is. For more resources on positive coaching, check out the positive coaching alliance here.
So while many negative coaches have had success, and some players respond well to negative criticism, I believe a positive approach is best. After all, it’s just a game. Don’t we want our youth to enjoy it and participate in sports for the rest of their lives? Or do we want to drive them away from it? This doesn’t mean we hand out awards to everyone and stroke their egos constantly, but I do believe a positive approach can ultimately bring out the best in your team and athletes. I will leave you with this. My son enjoys playing basketball but has never considered himself a very good player. While his skills are close to average, he has made great improvement over the last couple of seasons. While I had a negative experience in my first years of basketball, which drove me away from the game, my son has been lucky to have very positive coaching this season. It has made a huge difference. Last year, he was timid in his play and through his body language, you could see his lack of confidence on the court. This year, his coach told him that he believed he could play basketball in high school if he continued to practice and work hard. The boost in confidence from that one simple statement cannot go unnoticed. He has been more aggressive and hustling on the court. He even stands taller with his shoulders back. As a coach, especially for the younger kids, I believe the role of the coach, beyond teaching sports skills, should be to point out their strengths, help them cultivate them, set challenging but realistic goals, and urge them to persist even through failure. What kind of coach do you want to be?